February 20, 2015
It was snowing. I was in fifth grade, and my teacher, Mrs. Turner, quickly gave up on trying to teach us anything. There’s no point in saying anything to a bunch of ten and eleven year olds when our heads are being drawn, as if by magnetic force, to the window. The large white flakes drifting down turned us into a bunch of flakes. She sent one kid to the supply room to get the TV on the large rolling stand. She then picked another lucky kid to put on his coat and hat and go out with a ruler to measure the depth of the snow. She’d do this at half-hour intervals until our buses were called or our parents came. Until then she plugged in the TV and turned it on PBS. The only thing that could draw our attention away from the windows was supposedly educational animation.
On the screen a badly animated boy, distinguished as such by his overalls and short hair, looked straight at us and said, “I need a new videogame.” That sounded pretty good to me. I would have liked a new videogame too, especially an Atari system like my friend David. I also would have been happy even with an old one. At that point there wasn’t a big gap between the latest Atari system and the older ones that just had Pong. “No,” a badly animated girl, distinguished by her blond pigtails and pink dress, also looking straight at us corrected him. “You want a new videogame. You need new shoes. Some things you want, and some things you need. A new videogame is something you want. New shoes are something you need.”
So. I sat corrected. I didn’t need a videogame, new or old. I could live without one. Did I need new shoes? The ones I had were nicely broken in. That was always a problem. I would always get new shoes even while the old ones were perfectly comfortable. Part of the sole of my right sneaker was coming off, and the shoelaces had broken and been knotted back together a couple of times, and there was a big gouge down the outside of my left sneaker, and they’d both started to get a bit pungent from the time I underestimated the depth of a puddle I was walking through, but they were comfortable and mostly getting the job done of protecting my feet from the elements. I might want new shoes-although I didn’t at the time-but I couldn’t honestly say I needed them. Then I started thinking about what sort of shoes I would need. Did I really need sneakers, or did I just want them? I wasn’t sure I needed anything more than the most basic form of foot protection. I could probably get by with shooting a couple of squirrels with my BB gun, skinning them, and making a pair of moccasins. That was a little beyond my skill level at the time. I hadn’t even tried shooting a squirrel, and I suspected they’d be harder to hit than the targets I nailed to trees. I also didn’t know where to begin with cleaning and skinning a squirrel to turn it into leather. I’d probably be better off settling for some tree bark strapped to my feet with vines. I wasn’t even sure I needed that much, though. If I walked around barefoot long enough my feet would toughen up, like a Hobbit’s. I’d be at an increased risk of tetanus and hookworms, but I couldn’t decide whether I needed to be free of tetanus and hookworms or whether it was just something I wanted.
Having left the station at full steam this train of thought quickly steamed into clothes. As long as I was inside and things were nice and warm I wasn’t sure I, or, for that matter, anyone else really needed clothes. I wasn’t comfortable going bare-chested, but I wasn’t sure whether that discomfort was a want or a need. Then there was a whistle stop at buildings. They protected us from the elements, but did we need to protection, or did we just want it? Some people a few eons ago got the bright idea to leave equatorial Africa, where things were nice and warm and decided they wanted to go north. Was their journey really necessary?
On the surface the show seemed like it was teaching a simple lesson about the difference between wants and needs, but it was really reminding me of something I’d already learned, or had intuitively grasped. There are no simple lessons. Everything’s a lot more complicated than grownups wanted to let on. The people that make videogames need a job just as much as the people who make shoes, and they both contribute to the economy. Prioritizing one over the other threatens both. Even if we can agree on what the basic necessities are civilization doesn’t exist just to give us food, shelter, and clothes. It was the beginning of my understanding that money, however useful it is, is ultimately a fictional construct, abstract tokens of exchange that represent relative values. That got me wondering about the ulterior motives of the show’s producers. Maybe they didn’t want to teach us that we wanted videogames but needed shoes. Maybe they wanted to sow distrust and suspicion of commerce and market forces with the intent of eventually bringing down the entire world economy. Their plan may have been to return humanity to an idyllic hunter-gatherer existence. Or maybe it was to weaken humanity as a whole, making us an easily manipulated unwashed mass full of tetanus and hookworms. Maybe they were communists. Maybe they were anarchists. Maybe they were anarcho-syndicalists intent on exposing the violence inherent in the system. And they were working fertile ground. We were a bunch of ten and eleven year olds. We knew about repression. I personally felt the sting tyranny when I was denied a new videogame.